What a difference a week makes. Seven days after the worst loss in team history, the Buccaneers defended Raymond James Stadium against the surging Saints. They sent the fleur-de-lis back to New Orleans with a division loss and a maimed coach, earning the first quality win of the Raheem Morris era.
Welcome back, Josh Freeman! The much-maligned 23-year-old passer put together the four best quarters of the season. He stood tall against Gregg Williams’s blitz packages and survived the game without surrendering a sack. He was also the model of efficiency, posting the second 300-yard game of his career and a 95.9 passer rating which was easily his best of the season.
Greg Olson’s offense looks halfway competent when the quarterback isn’t missing wide open receivers. If Freeman doesn’t fall back into a statistical stasis that plagued him through the first third of the season, then Tampa’s playoff hopes are stronger than ever. When Freeman is on target — when Tampa’s six-foot-six, 260-pound mega-athlete is shrugging off sacks, dropping bombs, and running for first downs — the Buccaneers can beat anyone.
Other standouts: It’s like Tanard Jackson never left; the ballhawk was back in the secondary, laying big hits, picking off passes, and supercharging the defensive backfield. And kudos to the defensive line: there were no sacks, but they kept Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas frustrated for most of the game.
What do Mike Williams and Michael Clayton have in common? Too much, as of now. Tampa’s sophomore receiver is on pace to catch 66 balls — one more than his rookie total — but his yardage and touchdowns are suffering horribly. Mike is on schedule for a pedestrian 645 yards and 3 touchdowns, about five games worth of production less than his record-breaking inaugural season.
He’s been dropping passes at a ridiculous rate (including two drive-killers on third down), and is battling through tight coverage for every reception. Defenses are paying him extra attention this season — deservedly so, after being torched by him in 2010 — but Williams isn’t finding openings in the coverage. Most of his receptions this season have been on slants or screens, and he is averaging fewer yards per reception than Jahvid Best, Jonathan Stewart, Matt Forte, Fred Jackson, and Ryan Mathews — all running backs, catching passes from the backfield.
The extra focus on Williams has opened things up for Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker, and the offense is moving well, but a team’s primary wide receiver needs to find openings down the field, and Williams has shown himself incapable through the first six games of 2011.
Other off-days: Jeff Faine. Your bicep? Again?
By all accounts, Kellen Winslow has been the model teammate in Tampa Bay. And, to be fair, he’s done nothing to show otherwise.
Save for his childish display against the Saints.
The tight end was visibly frustrated after Freeman missed a wide-open throw in the second quarter. The next play — also to Winslow — was off-target, and Winslow shook his head in contempt. The third play, another pass to the star tight end, also missed, and Winslow waved dismissively — and condescendingly — at Freeman before heading toward the sideline.
It’s been the only sign of dissension — so far — from a teammate regarding Freeman’s poor throws. And it’s odd, because Winslow has been one of Freeman’s most outspoken supporters. But regardless of his feelings, Kellen needs to save his criticism for the locker room. It’s completely unprofessional and inexcusable, and a throwback to Winslow’s delinquency in Cleveland.
Others worth noting: God bless Sean Payton. The New Orleans signal-caller spent the first half on the sidelines, calling plays and grimacing sternly… with a broken freaking leg. Atlanta coach Mike Smith’s appearance is built around his tough-guy persona, but after Sunday, I’m not sure I’d bet on Smith in a back-alley brawl between the two.